In addition to the extreme emotional pain loneliness can cause, there is mounting evidence linking loneliness and bodily symptoms, categorizing it as a physical illness.
It may not come as a surprise to many, but loneliness is actually bad for your physical health — and there’s proof, as published in the Washington Post. More and more studies are coming out, finding that isolation causes genetic changes on a molecular level. These changes may be as harmful as smoking, obesity, and even diabetes, yet the issues presented by loneliness are rarely addressed within the public health conversation.
The feeling of loneliness is actually a result of human evolution, from a time when our survival depended on the safety provided by the group. It is meant to drive us to social interaction for cooperation and communication. The feeling of loneliness, then, is the body’s signal that something is wrong and needs to change — much in the same way hunger tells us we need to eat. It puts our bodies on alert, warning us of a threat, which may explain why lonely people struggle to form relationships in their heightened sensitivity to danger.
Psychologist Steve Cole and his colleagues conducted research looking into the effects social isolation has on the immune system. They found that isolation has dramatic impacts on a genetic level, causing more activity in genes that are involved in inflammation and less activity on those responsible for producing antibodies to fight infection.
In particular, people who are lonely see significant changes in a kind of white blood cell called monocytes. Monocytes play a crucial role in the body’s early defense against infection — but when they are underdeveloped, they actually reduce antibody effectiveness by causing inflammation, according to Nature. This may help explain why lonely people are at greater risk for heart attacks, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other health issues.
Lonely is Not Alone
A second analysis looked at data from 70 studies examining the lives of 3.4 million people with an average age of 66, according to the Washington Post. The studies lasted on average seven years, and approximately 25% of the participants died during that time. The review found that those who reported being lonely were 26% more likely to have died, while the mortality risk was 20% higher for those who were socially isolated.
It’s important to note that being alone and being lonely are not the same, a fact emphasized by the researchers. The feeling of loneliness can have the same negative impacts even if someone has a social network. Importantly, it’s not the same as depression, despite their frequent comorbidity.
Although loneliness certainly poses risks to our physical well-being, strong relationships can have the opposite effect. The wider variety of relationships a person has, the more improvement is apparent in physiological indicators of health like blood pressure and body mass index.
Despite the prevalence of loneliness (which has in recent years been exacerbated by social media) and obvious health risks associated with isolation, the issue is rarely addressed in the United States. Many researchers believe this needs to change by organizing social-service agencies and coordinating with legislators and health care providers — after all, public health issues wind up costing everyone in the end.
In the meantime, maintaining regular visits with your doctor is an important preventative step for loneliness-related illness, as is having a therapist to talk to if the feelings have become so acute. SingleCare provides its members with a comprehensive database of health practitioners across disciplines, from general care to psychiatry. Users pay only for the treatments they use, and SingleCare can be used in conjunction with or in place of insurance. No one should be lonely — so making sure to have the best medical care is the first step.
* Prescription savings vary by prescription and by pharmacy, and may reach up to 80% off cash price.
This is a medical discount plan.This is NOT insurance. This program offers you the opportunity to locate providers of various types of medical services who will offer their services to you at discounted rates. The range of discounts for medical or ancillary services provided under the plan will vary depending on the type of provider and service received. You are fully responsible for paying for all health care services but will be entitled to receive a discount from those health care providers in accordance with the specific pre-negotiated discounted fee schedule. This program does not guarantee the quality of the services or procedures offered by the providers. Except for prescription drugs which you will pay directly to the pharmacy at the time of purchase, all other services received through a program provider will be charged to the credit card on file in your member account. The charge will include an administrative fee for use of the program. Towers Administrators LLC is the licensed discount medical plan organization with its administrative office located at 4510 Cox Road, Suite 111, Glen Allen, VA 23060. SingleCare Services, LLC is the marketer of the discount medical plan organization including its website, singlecare.com, with its corporate office located at 99 High Street, Suite 2800, Boston, MA 02110. For additional information, including an up-to-date list of providers, or assistance with any issue related to program membership, please contact member support any time at www.singlecare.com, or by calling toll-free 844-234-3057, Monday through Friday 9am-9pm EST.